The Duke of Bedford on commissioning a Facsimile of Repton’s Red Book for Woburn Abbey

—7th March 2019

To mark the 200th anniversary of the death of the innovative landscape designer, Humphry Repton (1752-1818) Woburn Abbey and Gardens commissioned a limited edition facsimile of Repton’s grandest Red Book, the Red Book for Woburn Abbey, 1805 from the private library at Woburn Abbey.

Many of Humphry Repton’s Red Books are tucked away in private collections limiting their enjoyment to a few privileged owners and researchers. The original Red Book for Woburn Abbey is fragile through age and use and is therefore rarely on display, so when the volume was unbound to undertake some necessary conservation we decided to take the opportunity and create a limited edition facsimile – it is too special not to share.

Our Repton Journey

Some fifteen years ago now, my wife Louise’s passion for the Gardens led her to seek out Repton’s Red Book in the library and we have been investigating the impact of Repton’s landscape design proposals ever since. We were fortunate that the Repton landscape had not been swept away by the gardening fashions of the Victorian and Edwardian periods but restoring Repton’s vision is still a 25-year project, which we have split into manageable five year plans.

Now, near the end of our third five-year plan, the reinstatement encompasses the entire 42-acre garden. Essential infrastructure such as drainage and paths have been reinstated, major repairs, and in some cases, complete reconstructions bring back to life some of the most important Repton structures including: The Children’s Garden; The Folly; The Rockery and Pavilion; The Doric temple; The Cone House; The Aviary and The Rosarium Britannicum. Going forward the focus will be on planting successional trees and renewing the planting schemes in the beds and borders. When the programme of restorations are completed the Repton landscape at Woburn Abbey will be one of the best surviving examples of his work. 

Repton’s Red Books

Repton presented his proposals to clients as beautiful books – bound in red Morocco leather for which they are named. Indeed, Repton’s legacy is as much his series of Red Books which are works of art in themselves, as the landscapes he created. The books contain landscape plans and surveys, options for architectural features laid out alongside explanatory passages where Repton explains his theory of landscape gardening and his beautiful soft tone watercolours which document the 18th and 19th century landscapes he was consulted on, and many of which were altered as a result.

However, the Red Books are also an example of an early marketing tool designed by Repton to help clients visualise how his designs would alter particular views. He did this by creating before and after scenes using a simple flap that could be lifted. Repton painted stunning watercolour scenes documenting the landscape as it was and when the overlaid flap is lifted the scene is transformed to show the same view but with Repton’s suggested improvements. He would often add members of his clients’ family in the scenes to further endear his proposals. Amusingly, Repton’s determined self-promotion led him to include himself too.

The Woburn Red Book

The Red Book for Woburn Abbey is arguably Repton’s grandest Red Book. It is quite extraordinary in terms of its size and execution. When he was invited by the 6th Duke of Bedford to Woburn Abbey in 1804 Repton had no other commission of the horizon. The resulting Red Book perhaps, therefore, reflects the importance to Repton of obtaining the Duke’s approval.

The depth and detail of the soft tone watercolours were not easily reproduced and required expert and dedicated treatment. Shepherds, Sangorski & Sutcliffe, one of the oldest bookbinding firms in Britain, was chosen for this special commission. Combining their traditional skills with the latest in fine art printing techniques, Repton’s watercolours and designs have been reproduced to the highest standard and his before and after scenes have been recreated in an exquisite handbound volume which is faithful to the original 19th century binding and tooled in 24 carat gold leaf.

I am delighted with the finished product which is worthy of the original – so worthy in fact that when we were examining the facsimile next to the original we had to remind ourselves which the original was! True craftsmanship, at its best.  

The Wider Story

Whilst Repton’s work for my family is dominated by his time at Woburn Abbey, the Russells were in fact patrons of his most varied commissions. These ranged from a small family home at Oakley, near Bedford, designs for Russell Square in Bloomsbury, London, buildings in the centre of Tavistock, Devon and a cottage orné (or decorative cottage) at nearby Endsleigh.

We also have the Red Book for Endsleigh, 1814 in the library at Woburn and though diminutive compared to the Woburn Abbey volume it to captures Repton at a pivotal point in his career – near the end of his life when his view of ‘picturesque’ had fallen out of step with wider landscaping trends. He depicts himself in one of the watercolours aged and in with health failing, supported by his daughter.

Landscape designer, gardens historian and Repton expert, Keir Davidson has written a book to tell the story of Repton and the Russell family to accompany the facsimile. It is richly illustrated and features both Red Books in the Woburn Abbey collection.

Andrew Russell, Duke of Bedford

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For more information on the limited edition facsimile or publication visit www.woburnabbey.co.uk/gardens/limited-edition-repton

The original Red Book for Woburn Abbey, 1805 will be on display from 05 April 2019 to 01 September at Woburn Abbey www.woburnabbey.co.uk/

To join a Humphry Repton Study Day on 20th April visit www.woburnabbey/gardens

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